A Naked Person’s 40+ Years of Gestation

 

Les Blank, NYC, 9/16/82

Les Blank, NYC, 9/16/82

Unreleased for more than 40 years, the great documentary filmmaker Les Blank’s wonderful, raucous “A Poem Is a Naked Person” has finally emerged.

In 1972, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell invited Blank to make a film about him and his rock/blues/bluegrass/gospel music. Setting up with collaborator Maureen Gosling at Russell’s recording complex, Paradise Studios, in Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, about ninety miles northeast of Tulsa, Blank simultaneously edited footage he had recently shot of Creole music and culture in Louisiana, and kept his camera rolling for two years, accumulating nearly 60 hours of 16mm film.

Blank chronicled exuberant scenes of Russell and his band rehearsing, recording and performing, legends like Willie Nelson and George Jones stopping by to play, and visits by other musicians and artists. And moving outside the studio walls, beyond just documenting the music, Blank wove in the local rural culture, the counterculture, and a building’s controlled implosion in Tulsa, fixing Paradise Studios in a now vanished time and place.

“A Poem Is a Naked Person” will open on Wednesday, July 1 at Film Forum for a two-week run. Leon Russell will be in person at the 7:15 pm show.

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Grace Lee Boggs: 100

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs

American hero, the indomitable Grace Lee Boggs is 100 today–and for more than three quarters of a century, with a literal belief in the promises made by our Constitution, she has been fighting for civil rights, equality.

Boggs, brilliant and indefatigable, still an activist and philosopher in her beloved Detroit, says of her remarkable life and work (she published her most recent book,”The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century” in 2011), “I have endured and I have changed…ideas have their power because they’re not fixed.”

Today at 10:00 am The Boggs Center will participate in a peace demonstration, “Silence the Violence March,” organized by Church of the Messiah, 231 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit.

(And yesterday, with the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage a right, our nation, a work-in-progress, edged closer to keeping its promises.)

Grace Lee Boggs,

Grace Lee Boggs

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Having a Little Work Done in Order to Keep Working

Jennifer Phang, NYC, 6/19/15

Jennifer Phang, NYC, 6/19/15

I’ve always been a fan of science fiction, although the majority of the genre’s women are merely intergalactic babes (looking at you, Barbarella). Even the great Uhura (Nichelle Nicols) was relegated to the role of the Enterprise’s receptionist. And Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s kick-ass space commando, undeniably played as a powerful woman, is a unisex role and could have easily been written for a man.

Not so Gwen Koh (played with quiet intensity by co-writer Jacqueline Kim), the protagonist of director/co-writer Jennifer Phang’s feminist feature, the elegantly dystopian “Advantageous,” which recently had its New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest.

The fascinating film is set in the near future, a time of grotesque economic inequality and fierce pushback against prior progress made by women. Gwen, a single mother, lives with her beloved adolescent daughter Jules (Samantha Kim) in a small and spartan modern apartment in an unnamed city. Obsessed with giving Jules a private school education, an “advantage” guaranteeing a future free from deprivation, Gwen is suddenly threatened with the loss of her job just as Jules is accepted at a prestigious school.

Very attractive, Gwen has long been resigned to her commodification by her employer (and that of all women by society in general). But she’s no longer young enough, and her role as the spokesperson for the Orwellian-named Center for Advanced Health and Living will be terminated unless she’s willing to literally become the face (and body) of the company’s latest product.

The gorgeous special effects in “Advantageous”–including the architecture/skyline and tech devices that are all but installed in the body–create just enough “future” and were likely realized on a budget less than the cost of one day’s craft service for “Blade Runner.”

Foreboding and dread run parallel with the beauty Phang created. She says, “I hope the film isn’t prophetic, rather, a warning, a cautionary tale.”

“Advantageous” opens Friday, June 26 at Cinema Village.

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Brooklyn’s Best Fest

BAMcinemaFest 2015 Filmmakers

BAMcinemaFest 2015 Filmmakers

As summer (my favorite season) approaches, BAMcinemaFest (my favorite reason to sit inside in good weather, gorging on this year’s bounty of independent film) kicks off its seventh annual edition.

BAMcinemaFest (called “The city’s best independent film showcase” by The New Yorker, and losing the qualifier, The Village Voice dubbed it, “Best film festival in New York”), for 2015, will present the New York premieres of 35 innovative independent films (23 features and 13 shorts).

Gabriele Caroti, director of BAMcinématek, says, “In its seventh year, BAMcinemaFest has expanded its reach with thematically and formally daring workfrom a dazzling chase across Los Angeles captured on iPhones (Sean Baker’s Tangerine) to a narrative reimagining of seminal documentary Portrait of Jason (Jason and Shirley, directed by Stephen Winter). And we are ecstatic to welcome back James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, BAMcinemaFest 2013) with The End of the Toura snapshot of literary titan David Foster Wallace and the first opening night film by a BAMcinemaFest alumnus.”

Also included this year are four works by some of independent film’s founding fathers/mother: Penelope’s Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization,” the 20th anniversary reunion screening of Larry Clark’s “Kids,” Les Blank’s “A Poem Is A Naked Person,” and a free outdoor screening of Richard Linklater’s influential first feature, “Slacker,” at Pier 1, Brooklyn Bridge Park.

And I’m thrilled to be photographing, in my studio for the fourth year, the amazing filmmakers participating in BAMcinemaFest, working with BAMcinématek’s incomparable, unflappable Lisa Thomas and Hannah Thomas.

BAMcinemaFest opens today and continues through June 28.

BAMcinemaFest 2015 Filmmakers

BAMcinemaFest 2015 Filmmakers

Upper Grid: clockwise from top left: Jem Cohen, Chad Gracia, Alex Ross Perry, Stephen Winter. All images © Robin Holland.

Lower Grid: top row, left to right: Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, Sebastián Silva, Elizabeth Giamatti; bottom row, left to right: Joe Callander, Nathan Silver, Patrick Wang. All images © Robin Holland.

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Flag Day 2015

IMG_4145©robinhollandThe “sound and fury, signifying nothing” patriotism of right-wing politicians has long included the metaphoric wrapping themselves in the flag, and an obsession with passing legislation to prevent our beautiful banner’s defacement, in egregious violation of the First Amendment’s right of free speech.

In 2003, Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH), a supporter of a (waste-of-time) House amendment, H.R.J. Res. 4 (108th Congress, 1st Session), “The Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States,” said, “If we allow the flag’s defacement, we allow our country’s gradual decline.”

Wonder what he thinks of the trend for Old Glory to wrap the bodies of all kinds of American citizens in the form of  sweaters, jackets, shirts, pants (street-appropriate and pajama bottoms), scarves, bikinis, etc. And of course it’s important to accessorize: including bags, backpacks, umbrellas, hats, caps, helmets and bandanas.

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The Stressful Side of Pastoral (Stillwater Diary)

Shagbark Hickory, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/31/15

Shagbark Hickory, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/31/15

In May, before the rain came, the sound of drops was constant, not water but leaf debris falling from the voracious mouths of caterpillars, insect Agent Orange, defoliating the trees, as they made their malignant lace. Near the house the preference was the beautiful shagbark hickories. In the woods, the caterpillars were omnivorous.

The rainfall in June seems to have washed some of them away, the chewing has slowed, or maybe the caterpillars are preparing to emerge in fearful form as moths, to terrorize me with their erratic flitting, powdery wings and swollen bodies. (Don’t laugh, I’m not afraid of snakes or mice.)

In May, I heard frequent gunshots, hunters in the woods–turkey season–hard to pinpoint the location of the firing, unlikely they were in our woods, maybe in Sally’s, or across the Esopus. Leo, Ryder and I were walking down to the Groverkill when Ryder madly accelerated and catching up to him I saw turkeys scattering, feet moving like the Roadrunner’s. The flock escaped to the right, except for two, who turned left and launching themselves into the air, flew over him, so funny in their gracelessness, looking like frozen butterballs with wings.

I have no choice but to be ok with the stressfulness of defoliation, hunters and the orange needles still gripping the branches of  the white pines. But last weekend, looking down the slope near two of the hurting hickories, I saw a black bear standing on stones in the parched Groverkill. It turned its head to check me out.  It was gorgeous but intimidating–I know my place in the food chain–and faking calm, I walked away.  Maybe it’s not so tragic to spend some summer days in New York.

Shagbark Hickories, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/10/15 (left) and 5/31/15 (right)

Shagbark Hickories, Stone Ridge, NY, 5/10/15 (left) and 5/31/15 (right)

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Women in Love

Anne Fontaine

Anne Fontaine

Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton), a pretty, peaches and cream Englishwoman, casually voluptuous, moves with her new husband, Charlie (Jason Flemyng), a furniture restorer and a kind man, to an old farmhouse in a small village in Normandy–the same village where Flaubert created his famous fictional Frenchwoman, Gemma’s near namesake, a century earlier.

In director and co-writer Anne Fontaine’s witty new film, “Gemma Bovery,” based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel, the couple is warmly welcomed by their neighbor Martin Joubert (the great Fabrice Luchini), who lives with his no-nonsense wife and typical difficult teenage son. Years earlier Joubert had returned home to take over his father’s bakery, seeking a “peaceful and balanced life,” (but now acknowledges his naiveté: “fat chance”). Gemma and Charlie, escaping the dreariness of England, have an even more romanticized view of provincial French life.

Martin, a Flaubert expert, is soon smitten with Gemma and makes himself useful in order to be near her, helping her acclimate. The audience shares the pleasures that initially charm Gemma–a farmhouse out of a shelter magazine, postcard-perfect village (home to Joubert’s boulangerie) and sun-drenched landscape. But she’s unable to overcome her dissatisfaction with Charlie, for whom she had quietly “settled.”

Gemma begins to dislike her house, enumerating its supposed faults: “cold, damp and riddled with vermin.” She falls for a younger golden boy, Hervé de Bressigny (Niels Schneider), a law student, who’s summering solo in his Parisian family’s second house–a chateau, ideal for sexy afternoon trysts. And her sophisticated British ex, who had dumped her, surfaces, a friend of a local upscale expat/French couple, and is very flirtatious.

Plenty of clever parallels with the novel make the film fun but significant divergence prevents it from seeming like just a “shot for shot remake.” Luchini characterizes the comic and ironic film’s method as smuggling “Flaubert out of the past, like Molière in “Bicycling with Moliére.” It’s the same kind of thing: we seek out old texts to breathe new life into them.”

Martin, who calls “Madame Bovary” a “mundane story told by a genius,” is totally aware of the convergence of Gemma’s life with Emma’s and grows anxious for her safety and future.  Although his role here is far greater than that of the narrator’s in the novel, he can’t “avoid the unavoidable.” Gemma doesn’t die by her own hand but the scene in which her life ends is a very dark comedy of errors, involving the men circling around her.

The film has a surprise ending so perfect (it’s a wise child who knows his father–and the man’s preoccupation with the tragic heroines of great fiction) that there won’t even be a whisper of a spoiler here.

“Gemma Bovery” opens Friday, May 29 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Sunshine Cinema with a national roll out to follow.

Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie

Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie

Directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film, “Heaven Knows What,” spectacularly shot by Sean Price Williams, opens with an extreme close-up of two beautiful losers, young junkie lovers, and a hypnotic manic score. Harley (Arielle Holmes, whose book, “Mad Love In New York City,” inspired the film), too young for her dangerous life to show in her lovely face, loves charismatic, pouty Ilya (the extraordiinarily talented Caleb Landry Jones). And she believes her love is profound, endless, and transcends his often abusive behavior. While he’s roughly dismissing her, she asks, “would you forgive me if I die?” And to prove her devotion, she opens her arm with a razor blade she had earlier panhandled to buy.

There’s no judgment in the Safdies’ sometimes almost too immersive film, but there’s no romanticizing of the characters’ brutal lives either. They are dirty, often affectless, with slack mouths and focusless eyes. They talk too loudly, repeating desperate or furious nonsense, swill alcohol, cough medicine and Coca Cola.  Their interchangeable days and nights are controlled by the search for a heroin fix.

Yet the filmmakers also have a deep empathy, if not quite hope, for these street kids, living their almost unlivable, mostly unfixable lives.  Sadness, not scorn, is the response to Harley’s shaky inability to thread a needle (she wants to mend Ilya’s torn jacket) and her understanding of herself, addressed to Ilya, in a moving voiceover, “To me you were the sweetest boy in the world…Everything that I am today came from you.”

“Heaven Knows What” opens Friday, May 29 at the Sunshine Cinema and in Los Angeles at the ArcLight Cinemas with a national rollout to follow.

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